When visiting an impoverished village in Brazil more than 40 years ago, George McGovern remembers meeting several children living in a mud hut with their 60- to 65-pound mother.
McGovern later returned to the United States and made recommendations for a school lunch program, which he said now reaches 35 million children in Latin America.
About 150 people in Harris Hall Tuesday night gave a standing ovation to McGovern, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, who spoke at the 10th annual Richard W. Leopold lecture series. McGovern received his Ph.D. from Northwestern, served in Congress and won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
After growing up in South Dakota, McGovern became interested in the problem of world hunger during World War II.
“I lived through the depression,” McGovern said. “But (South Dakota) was a farm state and most people had some access to food. In World War II, I saw real human hunger for the first time.”
During the war, McGovern served in Italy, where he said mothers scratched through garbage and children drowned after jumping in the water to retrieve food from ships.
“(Italy) had been heavily impacted by the war,” McGovern said. “Hunger can be a way of life that’s very painful.”
After a request by McGovern in 1960 “to make a maximum effort to narrow the gap between abundance here at home and starvation abroad,” President John Kennedy created an office of Food for Peace as his second executive order and appointed McGovern director.
McGovern said he supports direct feeding programs, which give children school lunches and feed pregnant and nursing mothers.
“You can almost predict that school attendance will double in the first year (of the programs),” McGovern said. “It has worked wonders wherever we’ve tried it, both in this country and abroad.”
McGovern highlighted the universal school lunch program; preschool feeding for mothers and infants; and improved agricultural development, food distribution, storage and processing as the most important aspects of the plan to decrease hunger.
Although McGovern mentioned the barriers to food distribution in areas that lack roads and air fields, Weinberg junior Mike Ebner said he did not address possible solutions for this problem.
“His idea concerning universal lunch programs is an idealistic goal,” Ebner said. “But he failed to tell the audience how he’d implement gathering and distributing food in underdeveloped Third World nations.”
But in the last 10 years, the production of food in the world has increased 16 percent more than the population has increased, which McGovern said is encouraging.
“We can win this battle,” he said. “And that may help all of us get into heaven.”